The city of Detroit has seen some legendary athletes throughout history. Many players have contributed to championship cultures and provided many championships to the city. The Wings have provided 11 rings, the most in the city and the reason Detroit is dubbed “Hockeytown.” The Pistons have provided three rings. The Lions have four, and the Tigers have four as well. The most recent championship won by any Detroit team was in 2008, when the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. This list will shine a light on five of the most influential athletes in Detroit sports history.
1. Gordie Howe
This guy was simply legendary. The epitome of a leader. The greatest Red wing ever. Not only did he impact the game of Hockey, but he also changed the narrative of Detroit sports forever. Howe was born in Canada in 1928 and began playing Hockey at age five. He was added to the Wings in 1946 along with fellow Wings legend Ted Lindsay. Howe’s accomplishments with the Wings are second to none. He won four Stanley cups (1950,1952,1954, 1955), and won the NHLs MVP award six times (1952,53, 57,58,59,63). He was nicknamed “Mr. Hockey” for all he accomplished during his 25-year career in Detroit. Howe is the most successful athlete in Detroit sports history and has a statue in the Wings’ current stadium, Little Caesars Arena. The Wings retired Howe’s number has been retired by the Wings since 1972.
2. Ty Cobb
Ty Cobb was the player that put Detroit baseball on the map. Although Cobb never brought a title to Detroit, his accolades as a player were simply incredible. He won 12 batting titles and amassed more than 4,000 hits and 2,000 runs. The most impressive, however, was none other than his MLB record .367 career hitting average. Let that sink in. Cobb’s name is on the wall at Comerica Park with no number. It was during this period of baseball that numbers were not given out to players.
3. Isiah Thomas
This is where my list gets controversial. However, Isiah is more than deserving of this spot. Before he was drafted to Detroit in the 1981 NBA draft, Detroit was never known for being a basketball city. They were known as the team that players ended their careers on. Isiah immediately changed that. Unfortunately for him, he was drafted into a very competitive era in the NBA. Magic and Bird dominated the league, and the Pistons did not have any talent around Isiah until later on. Once the Pistons hired GM Jack McCloskey, the roster changed heavily. McCloskey traded for Bill Laimbeer, drafted Dennis Rodman, and drafted Joe Dumars. That was all the help Isiah needed, and the Pistons went on to eventually defeat the Celtics and Lakers and become back-to-back world champions in 1989 and 1990. The “Bad Boy” Pistons are still considered one of the toughest teams in history.
As for Isiah, he gave the city of Detroit two championships. He was a 12-time All-Star, five-time all-NBA team member, and an NBA Hall of Famer. He is considered the best Piston ever and widely regarded as a top 10 guard in history.
4. Barry Sanders
There are many talented players that have played in the NFL, Barry Sanders is a generational talent. One of the players that can single handily lift a team to the playoffs. The Detroit Lions are known historically as a losing franchise. They have just never been able to keep players and coaches to develop. However, they did draft the greatest running back in history. The popularity of the NFL played a big part in why I put Barry so high on this list, but his accomplishments stand alone. The 1989 Rookie of the year. Six-time All-Pro. 10-time Pro Bowler. Considering the fact Barry retired after nine short seasons, his numbers are even more impressive. He had 15, 269 yards and 98 touchdowns in his career. The Lions retired his number in 2004, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
5. Joe Louis
One of the greatest boxers of all time, Joe Louis is a Detroit Icon. Joe was the world heavyweight champ from 1937 until 1949. That stands as the longest streak in boxing history. He affected the culture of the sport immensely, Being an African American boxer in a time of racial injustice was extremely hard. He fought for injustices in Detroit and was an ambassador for the city. The Wings and the city decided to dedicate the former home of the Red Wings to Joe, naming it the Joe Louis Arena, which opened in 1979 and was recently closed in 2017 after the building of LCA. Joe was known for his boxing, but also contributed to the development of Detroit’s culture and was an ambassador to the African American community.
He died in 1981 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Then President Ronald Reagan waived the requirements for Lewis, who technically did not qualify for burial there. However, he was given a full military honors funeral. His tombstone is engraved with “The Champ”. Not only was he a Detroit icon, but a national hero.
There are many more Detroit athletes that could have easily been on this list. However, I felt these five had made the most impact on the city and the fans. It is incredible how many legends have played for this city !